more PRESS

Top Gear Romania: Roadbook, Oct 2010, Razvan Exarhu
Financial Times: Prince Charles in Transylvania, Aug 2010, William Blacker
The Independent: Luxury Forest Retreats, Nov 2009, Melissa Hogenboom
Igloo: patrimoniu: Casa de vacanta la Zabala, Nov 2009, Réka Tugui, Serban Bonciocat
Vivid: Inns of Romania, Oct 2008, Friedrich Niemann
The Independent: 24-Hour Room Service: Zabola, Transylvania, Oct 2008, Rhiannon Harries
Tabu:   Un Cuib de nobili, Aug 2008 Alexandra Zabunov
New York Magazine: The Continent, Off the Grid, Mar 2008
CNN Traveller: Return of the native, Jan 2008, Andrew Eames
Harper's Bazaar: Jan 2008, 2008 Travel Guide, Catherine Fairweather
Exit Magazine: Vampires and untouched wilderness, Jan 2008 Stephen Toner (below)
Culture & Travel Magazine: Dec 2007, Gisella Williams
The Week: Quirky B&B, Dec 2007
Marie Claire: Kastély a Kárpátokban, Jul 2007, Lukács Zsolt (below)
The Spectator: Grin and Bear it, Feb 2007, Neil Barnett
Heti Válasz: Honfoglalok, Feb 2007
Country Life: Return to Transylvania, Jan 2006, Tom Owen
CNN Traveller: Simple Pleasures, Mar 2005
The Budapest Times: Ancient Europe returning to life in the heart of Transylvania, Feb 2005, Tom Owen
Sztárok: Zabolán ujra süt a nap, Sept 2004, Pallavicini Zita


Moons and Aurochs, Alan Ogden, Orchid Press, ‘Moons and Aurochs’ takes the reader on an eccentric and out-of-the-way tour of Romania.'

Travel Guidebooks

Transylvania, Bradt Guides, Lucy Mallows, Aug 2008

TV / Documentary

TVR 1: Romania delicioasa, Razvan Exarhu, Dec 2010
Duna TV: Kastély a Kárpátokban, Csáky Zoltán, Nov 2007
Duna TV: Testámentumi rendelés, Feb 2005
MTV: Politour, Régi-új földesurak Erdélyben, Jan 2005, Ugron Zsolna

Vampires and untouched Wilderness

Exit Magazin, Stephen Toner, Jan 2008

At the first mention of this place there is one word that always comes to mind –Count Dracula.

Vlad Dracula, the ruler of the first Romanian state of Wallachia was known as Vlad the Impaler as he left his enemies to die slowly on stakes. This tale became the inspiration for many literary pieces and today moulds common perception of Transylvania.

As I drive through Transylvania from Bucharest I soon hit the foot of the Carpathian Mountains and every visual expectation I had is washed away. I had been expecting to find a land that comes hand in hand with the legend of Dracula. Instead, I drive straight into a magical Winter Wonderland and it’s only early November.I hadn’t prepared myself for the sheer breathtaking beauty. It’s like taking a trip through a myriad of fairytales from snow-tipped evergreens, to winding mountain roads flanked with warm autumnal trees and sunshine streaming down from clear blue skies. The light falls like a jigsaw puzzle and you feel it your duty to carry on driving and try putting the puzzle pieces together.

Driving out of the mountains towards my final destination of Zabola you find yourself drifting further and further back in time. Villages are medieval in their spirit and appearance, some of these settlements are over eight hundred years old. There is the occasional odd juxtaposition of a very dated satellite dish planted on a wooden, colonial looking home, the type you come across on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. But none the less there is the feeling that time has stood still in this region, something very rare in today’s European countries.

Pork and bread are for sale at the roadside and many of the villages consist of a hamlet of houses, a wishing well and a church. Curiously however, I did find several second hand shops (actually often more like someone’s front room rather than a shop), in pretty much every village I drove through. I stopped at many, and actually they where all worth the rummage.

An unexpected mode of transport across Transylvania is horse and cart and whilst I imagined myself part of a Constable or Turner painting, I was also able to marvel in the timeless practicality of this type of transport that seemed very fitting in the surrounding landscape.

A few challenging map-reading moments later; I dodged the last free wandering cow and arrived at Zabola. Driving through the carved wooden arch entrance I absorbed the ever-changing atmosphere of Transylvania, although now arriving at my destination under darkness. I began to feel a little like I hoped I would, scared and frightened and as if I had truly entered Count Dracula’s hideaway. Foreboding trees loomed large, silhouettes seemed menacing and the fortified church challenging. Driving through a tree-lined roadway into the grounds of the estate I arrived at The Machine House where I would be staying for the next few nights. Receiving a warm welcome from the housekeeper, and felt like I had arrived at the peaceful sanctuary I’d been searching for. A roaring wood fire, large inviting sofas, board games and candlelight were extremely inviting. I just wanted to curl up with a book and dream about everything I had seen that day. After some great home cooked food, I ended up doing just that.

Katalin Roy Chowdhury, or Countess Mikes (pronounced Mickesh), was a small child when she was taken from her ancestral home in the middle of the night in 1949 and spent her teenage years in exile in Austria, returning just once, in disguise, to see her old home. After Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in the revolution of 1989, land was slowly returned to its original owners but it took years of legal battles before the countess could return again to her near derelict home in 2005. Helped by her two sons they set to work to restore the estate and soon opened as Count Mikes Estate, an office building from the communist era, it has been transformed into a fabulous six bedroom rustic guesthouse and masters the popular ‘shabby chic’ ambience that I love.

Exploring the visually indulgent landscape within the estate, I felt relaxed,rejuvenated and a sense of welcome isolation. The beech wood forests engulf the mountains, kissing the surrounding deep blue sky. In addition to The Machine House, there are two magnificent ancient stately homes within the grounds at present unoccupied and in the process of being restored for eventual habitation. They are both full of character, beautiful in appearance and open to be explored. Also within the grounds of the estate sits a stunning fishing lake that I spent a tranquil moment watching the sunshine play on the water and autumnal leaves drift down from the trees that lined the lake’s edge.

The Machine House will happily arrange enticing day trips during your stay, bear-watching being a more unique experience, for the Carpathians have more bears than anywhere in Europe. One trip that I strongly advise is visiting the mountain-framed city of Brasov and the stunning medieval settlement of Sighisoara. Thrilling and historical as it is the birthplace of Wallachian prince, the infamous ‘Vlad the Impaler’. However I felt, as I have throughout this journey, that the charm of Transylvania is creating your own journey and letting the story unfold. Visiting so many Saxon villages which where built by the 12th-century immigrants where enough to write my story itself. Flourishing in their beautifully ordered agricultural settlements, many Saxons have relocated to Germany in recent years, leaving behind their stunning villages of fortified churches, walled courtyards and broad, green streets for discerning travellers to experience.

My final adventure and mini road-trip took me to St Ann’s Lake, the only volcano crater lake in the region and a two hours drive from The Machine House through breathtaking mountain scenery. Legend has it that a proud landowner, collected the virgins from the region, and forced them to pull his carriage and as they did the girls cried the lake full with their tears. The drive into the mountains in search of this lake is as much of an experience as finding the lake herself. The view from the top of the mountain was the perfect backdrop for the homemade picnic lunch, the Machine House housekeeper had thoughtfully prepared. Whilst there is a sad but romantic story attached to the lake, it was beautiful, extremely beautiful and probably my highlight of Transylvania. Whilst standing on the jetty at the lake, reminding myself of where I was, I thought that however my fairytale ends, Transylvania definitely offered an experience that I was not expecting but very happy to have indulged.

Exit travelled to Romania with award-winning Black Tomato. To book your bespoke Romania or Bucharest break, visit or call +44 (0) 20 7610 9008 Words Thumper Finch

Stranger than fiction

Transylvania was made famous by Bram Stoker but the region's real history and medieval villages are much more interesting than Dracula

Patrick Barkham
The Guardian,  Saturday November 3 2007

Machine House Romania

Blood red ... Machine House, Transylvania.

The full moon draws lines of silver around the gloomy power stations on the plains outside Bucharest. Over the Carpathian mountains, the road twists alarmingly and fog descends on Transylvania. Gothic farms flash past as Nic, the taxi driver, expertly juggles three mobile phones, cranks up Van Halen on the radio, and somehow avoids the sepulchral shapes of women clutching babies crossing the treacherously misty road ahead. It is not quite the sort of fright I was expecting on a Halloween trip to Dracula country but it is quite scary enough.

"Transylvania had been a familiar name as long as I could remember. It was the very essence and symbol of remote, leafy, half-mythical strangeness; and, on the spot, it seemed remoter still, and more fraught with charms." So wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor of his romantic walk across this strange and beautiful land in 1934. Like many of his observations about Romania, it is still strikingly appropriate today, although to the Dracula myth we can add the enduring weirdness of those Transylvanian songbirds the Cheeky Girls.

Bram Stoker, the Irish novelist who never visited this land, is responsible for its image of towering castles, dark forests and Count Dracula rising above them, but the real Transylvania is more interesting and complex than the strangest of fiction.

The day after my dark drive dawned bright, with the relief and surprise that follows a night arrival. The tree-lined avenue leading into the Count Mikes Estate that had looked forbidding in the dark was russet and gold; the beechwoods on the hills beyond a mix of grey trunks and ochre autumnal leaves. Cooking smells wafted around the cosy, wooden-floored Machine House and, after breakfast, the Countess wandered in to say hello.

Katalin Roy Chowdhury, or Countess Mikes (pronounced Mickesh), was a small child when she was taken from her ancestral home in the middle of the night in 1949 and she spent her teenage years in exile in Austria, returning just once, in disguise, to see her old home. When Nicolae Ceausescu was deposed in the revolution of 1989, land was slowly returned to its original owners but it still took years of legal battles before the countess could return to her near-derelict home in 2005.

Helped by her two sons, she has set to work sensitively restoring the estate which her family has held since the 15th century. "I thought we must do something to make it better," she says firmly. Two fine old buildings remain and, last December, a third - the Machine House, which held generators for the primitive hospital the communists established on the estate - was opened as a guesthouse.

A lovely mix of privacy and country house informality, the Machine House has open fires and huge rooms, including the "red room" with a free-standing bath. Antlers on exposed stone walls create a warm, hunting lodge feel, without the gothic horror or the hunting (although the Mikes Estate can set up bear-watching trips - the Carpathians have more bears than anywhere in Europe, as well as wolves). Best of all, in a land unfairly maligned for its cooking, the guesthouse is managed by a chef who conjures up beautifully presented local dishes - venison, wild mushrooms and delicious home-made dips and jams - for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In the soft light of late autumn, the grounds of the estate are almost silent but for the tap-tap-tap of a woodpecker on a hollow branch. Red admirals and fritillaries bask in the last sunshine of the year. Beyond its walls unfold thickly wooded foothills where you can take guided treks, and dozens of fascinating settlements, including the local village, Zabola, well worth a tour in the estate's horse and trap. You won't stand out. Horses and carts shaped like troughs are still a common means of transport.

Despite its accession to the EU earlier this year, Romania still gets a bad press: the land of medieval mud that impersonated Kazakhstan in the Borat movie; the post-communist montage of grimy factories and stray dogs; and a people often accused of being implacably prejudiced against minorities like the Gypsies.

It is impossible to leave Romania without scenes of both pre-industrial and post-industrial ruin seared on your retina, but even if it is poorer than its fellow EU members, it cannot simply be branded as backward. Satellite dishes protrude from the grapevines meticulously threaded around homes; surf stickers decorate tractor windscreens. For every horse pulling a plough, there are families in SUVs; for every stream inexplicably flecked with plastic rubbish, there are immaculate Transylvanian villages such as Zabola: attractive and, without any "western" input, already completely sustainable.

There are many extraordinary places to visit on day trips from the Mikes Estate, including the mountain-framed city of Brasov and the stunning medieval settlement of Sighisoara, a Unesco world heritage site and the birthplace of Wallachian prince, Vlad Draculea, the infamous "Vlad the Impaler" who had a predilection for skewering enemies on wooden poles and, very loosely, inspired Stoker's entirely fictional Count Dracula.

But the most startling of all Transylvania's other worlds are the Saxon villages built by the 12th-century immigrants. Thriving in their beautifully ordered agricultural settlements, the Saxons retained their German language for the next 800 years and by the 1930s numbered 800,000. Thousands were killed during the second world war or fled during Ceausescu's regime. While ethnic Hungarians such as Countess Mikes returned to their land after the dictator was deposed, many Saxons have relocated to Germany in recent years, leaving behind their stunning villages of fortified churches, walled courtyards and broad, green streets.

One, Viscri, has been beautifully conserved, helped by a local charity which now boasts Prince Charles for a patron. Many, such as Apold and Bradeni, remain ordinary, working villages, with scarcely a car or shop in sight. Others, on rutted dirt roads, are near deserted, sad shells of the past. Here, Leigh Fermor's account of Transylvania in 1934 still holds true: "The rhythm of life had remained many decades behind the west - a hundred years, perhaps." Membership of the EU will soon change this. Much will be good - signs already show the cottage industries and admirable conservation efforts being funded - but much could be lost, particularly when the planned motorways traverse Transylvania, changing its still, silent valleys for ever.

Black Tomato (020-7610 9008, offers four nights' B&B the Machine House on the Count Mikes Estate, Transylvania ( from £499pp including BA flights and private transfers.

Kastély a Kárpátokban

Lukács Zsolt
Marie Claire, July 2007

Erdély mélyén, a Mikes grófok ősi birtokán jártunk vendégségben. A fordulatos sorsú, megtépázva is meseszép kastélyt és parkot birtokló fiatal házaspár mesélt nekünk nemesi családjuk megindító történetéről – és a happy endről. Ugron Zsolna budapesti, Gregor Roy Chowdhury-Mikes londoni életét adta fel az erdélyi mindennapokért.

Tárul a kovácsoltvas kapu, fiatal nő integet messziről, hogy kövessük az autóval. Átvágunk a hatalmas parkon, melléképületek, szobrok, égig érő fenyők mellett haladunk el.

Megérkeztünk a Keleti-Kárpátok lábánál fekvő Zabolára, a fordulatos sorsú Mikes-birtokra, ahol annak idején az író Mikes Kelemen is nevelkedett. A kastélyt ma az utolsó tulajdonos, Mikes Ármin gróf dédunokák, Alexander és idösebb testverre Gregor Roy Chowdhury-Mikes birtokolja feleségével, Ugron Zsolnával, no és a másfél éves Emmával. Az ebéd – a közeli vizekben fogott pisztráng, puliszka és házi szilvabefőtt – után Zsolna mesélni kezdi a történetüket, közben Gregor aludni viszi Emmát.

„Kolozsváron voltam gyerek, 11 évesen költöztünk a szüleimmel Budapestre. Elvégeztem a jogi egyetemet, de végül újságíró lettem. Évekig hírműsorokban, egyebek között a Tények és az MTV Híradójának szerkesztőségében dolgoztam. Mindig is újságíró akartam lenni, kérdezni, kideríteni az igazságot…, de amikor látod, hogy percenként kell kompromisszumokat kötnöd, az egy idő után elviselhetetlenné válik. 2005-ben otthagytam az egészet, és más területen kezdtem dolgozni. De közbejött egy fergeteges húsvét Erdélyben rokonokkal, barátokkal – és Gregorral. Láttuk már korábban is egymást, de csak percekre. Azon a húsvéton egy hétig voltam Erdélyben, és Gregor a hét végén megkérte a kezemet. Nyáron már postáztuk az esküvői meghívókat. Soha annyi szmokingot és kosztümöt nem láttak még Zabolán. A templomi esküvő után a kastélyban volt a lagzi. A Bécsből érkező vonathoz a vasút külön kocsit csatolt az esküvői vendégek kedvéért. A kastély üres volt, a faluból kaptunk kölcsön székeket, asztalokat, hogy a szó szerint a világ minden tájáról érkezett háromszáz vendég le tudjon ülni. Még villanyfény sem volt. Sok száz gyertya világította be az épületet. Különleges hangulatú vacsora volt, igaz, néhány libbenő nagyestélyi ruha lángra kapott éjszaka…”

Gregor édesapja bengáli arisztokrata volt, édesanyja Mikes Katalin grófnő, aki erdélyi gyermekkora után Ausztriába menekült a Ceausescu-rezsim elől. Itt találkozott a világ másik végéről Grazba tanulni érkezett későbbi férjével. Gregor Grazban született, nőtt fel, majd befektetési bankárként dolgozott Londonban, New Yorkban. Folyton repülőről repülőre szállt, rengeteget dolgozott, és rengeteg pénzt keresett. Édesapja halála után Zabolára utazott, hogy mindent átgondoljon. Mivel Mikes Katalin 1990 óta pereskedett a román állammal az elkobzott javakért, Gregor furcsa helyzetben tért vissza ősei birtokára: a parkot már visszakapta a család, de a kastélyban még működött az állami kórház. Gregor a faluban szállt meg egy idős tanító házaspárnál – Endre bácsi és Zsenike néni a mai napig szinte családtagnak számítanak. Rendbe tette a kerti házat, és eldöntötte, hogy marad. Zsolna sem az első Ugron lány a birtokon. Korábban is volt már Ugron–Mikes-esküvő, igaz, háromszáz évvel ezelőtt. Az Ugronok az egyik legősibb erdélyi arisztokrata család, sosem fogadtak el a Habsburgoktól adományrangokat. Ősi székely címet használtak, a primort. A nyugat-európai főnemesi hierarchiában a primor besorolhatatlan, de az udvari asztali ülésrend szerint a báró és a gróf között van a helye. „Tudom, hogy sokan grófnőznek a környéken, de ennek amúgy sincs semmi értelme, a nemesi címeket rég eltörölték Magyarországon és Romániában is” – mosolyog Zsolna.

A birtokra látogatók fehérre meszelt, fagerendás házban vehetnek ki szobát. A helyiségeket modern, „etnó” stílusban újították fel, minden szobához hatalmas, fapadlós fürdőszoba tartozik. A 18. századi épület hajdan a birtok gépházaként működött. Mivel a kert közepén áll, a nyaralóknak saját parkjuk van…

További érdekességeket a oldalon olvashatsz.

A júliusi Marie Claire magazin 61. oldalán Lukács Zsolt cikkében pedig tovább olvashatod a házaspár történetét, megtudhatod, hogyan nevelkedtek, milyenek a hétköznapjaik a pezsgő életű zabolai birtokon, és hogy milyen további, érdekes terveik vannak.

Fotó: Békefi Dóra

Grin and bear it

The Spectator, Neil Barnett, Thursday, 1st February 2007

As my little car laboured around a bend in the snowy Carpathian logging road, a brown furry figure jumped out of the forest on all fours and made off in front of the car. It was, perhaps, a sign that I had been too long in the city that I identified it as a man in a bear outfit. But as we pursued the lolloping creature, I realised my mistake: this was the real thing, a bear!

Bears make regular raids on the towns and villages of Transylvania in search of food. Occasionally they are shot; more often they get away, and their lot is infinitely better than the pigs’. One amazingly cold morning, not long after the start of my Transylvanian holiday, I was invited to a pig-killing, the highlight of the social calendar in this part of central Transylvania.

My hosts were Székely (pron. Se-kay) farmers, members of a Hungarian-speaking people claiming separate origins from the Magyars. They are tough, independent and mordantly humorous people who defended the borders of Transylvania and later the Habsburg empire from the Turks. In return they enjoyed the privilege of self-government like Russia’s Cossacks, free from serfdom and foreign military service.

This tradition of cussedness remains gloriously intact. Behind the ornately carved wooden arches that stand in front of Székely houses, what happens is more or less what always happened. Seeing that we were freezing, our host offered us a shot glass filled with a treacly black liquid which looked like Fernet Branca or the Hungarian Unicum. But it tasted like meths and was, we were told, industrial alcohol flavoured with cumin, just the thing to fortify you before witnessing the last moments of a pig.

The noise made by a stuck pig is just as you would imagine, with a fair amount of thrashing about and gore, but it left the assembled farmers, children, grandmothers and gypsies undisturbed, and terrified only the dog. The puli is an ancient Hungarian sheepdog that looks like a cocker spaniel in a Rastafarian wig, and despite his small size he’s usually fearless and ultra-territorial. But as the pig’s demise went on (usually it takes a good half hour), there was no mistaking the terror gripping the little black puli. After some whimpering, the dog retreated to the farthest part of his kennel, where he became invisible. Perhaps he thought he was for the chop too.

My next outing was to revisit the bears. At last light we walked into the foothills of the Carpathians to a clearing. The ghillie then festooned the trees and ground with apples, chocolate bars and meat before joining us in an enclosed tree-house equipped with a narrow viewing slit. Ten minutes later a Goldilocks-style family of bears sauntered up, two parents and two cubs, looking around as if it was all too good to be true. Twenty years ago, they would have been right. Nicholas Ceausescu, the communist leader of Romania, used to have the finest bear lured to just such a spot in exactly this way — then he’d fly in from Bucharest in a helicopter and shoot them.

I was there to watch, not to kill, but I’m sure I had just as much fun as Ceausescu. The bears made small whooping sounds and one of the cubs, made lightheaded by the windfall, threw an apple at his father’s back. For one moment it seemed as if a food fight would break out, before the daddy bear returned placidly to his haunch of mutton.

For the moment, there are no budget flights straight to Transylvania — which, when you consider the plight of Prague or Zagreb, is no bad thing. In a few years, I imagine, word of its natural beauty and wildness will spread, and visitors will descend in great numbers. For the moment, though, the flipside of having the place to yourself is that there isn’t a great choice of places to stay outside towns like Târgu Mures or Cluj. A good base is the guesthouse on the Count Mikes Estate in Zabola, nestling at the foot of the Carpathians ( Gregor and Alexander Roy-Chowdhury, its owners, are scions of the ancient Hungarian Mikes family and of a Bengali aristocrat. Romania’s communist regime seized the family’s property and used the buildings in Zabola to house a camp for communist youth and a hospital for tuberculosis, but Gregor abandoned his career in investment banking to reclaim the family property through restitution, and now has six guest rooms in a converted outbuilding, though the estate’s two castles remain uninhabitable.

It’s not too difficult to get to the estate — I was picked up from Brasov station by Árpi, one of the estate retainers, a chap recognisable from the Cotswolds to the Urals: gumboots, canvas trousers, moustache and roll-up cigarettes. And the food is good and traditional. Transylvanian food is, like the land itself, a mixture of Hungarian, Romanian and Saxon and, as I witnessed, the farming methods are entirely traditional. ‘We cook partly according to 18th- and 19th-century aristocratic Transylvanian cookbooks,’ said Zsolna, Gregor’s wife. ‘We have lots of trout from the river and game like wild boar.’ That night I dined off Hungarian pörkölt (often called goulash elsewhere) with Romanian mamaliga (polenta), a perfect Transylvanian concoction. Homemade plum pálinka proved a welcome improvement on industrial alcohol, cumin or no cumin.

After supper I ventured across the ‘volcanoes’ to a boozer in the singular village of Kommando. As the name suggests, Kommando was a military frontier post of the Austro-Hungarian empire, perched in a lonely spot high above Zabola. I must have seemed quite exotic to these stout mountaineers, whose favourite food in the depths of winter seems to be ice cream, and whose tolerance of the Bontempi organ is superhuman. But they proved, like everyone that we encountered, astoundingly friendly.

Simple pleasures

CNN Traveller, April 2005

Forget the fictional Count Dracula, Transylvania today provides a glimpse of a long-lost Europe. Words: Tom Owen. Photos: Bela Szandelszky

In a Europe that is becoming increasingly homogeneous, the mountains, forests and villages of Transylvania in Romania remain the last outpost of a more ancient era. Romanians, Saxons and Hungarians live in a patchwork of simple farming villages, drawing water from wells, living by near-subsistence agriculture and artisanal work. Dracula might be Transylvania's most obvious poster boy, but there is real romance and mystery to be found in this beautiful and ancient region.

[...] Covered by thickly forested hills and mountains inhabited by bears and wolves, where shepherds live outside with their flocks, Transylvania is a truly Arcadian place. But this unspoiled condition means it can be difficult to visit: roads are in poor condition and there is virtually no tourist infrastructure.

[..] Cultural and wildlife programmes can keep guests occupied for up to a fortnight. 'They might stay one night in the village and take a cart ride through the woods, then visit Saxon [German] and Székely [Hungarian] villages and natural attractions such as St Ann's lake, the only volcano crater lake in the region. They can also go bird watching and bear tracking. In winter we have a shuttle bus to the skiing resort of Poiana Brasov, just an hour away'.

To the east of Miklosvar lies the Zabola estate of the Mikes family, owned by Kálnoky's cousins, Gregor  and Alexander Roy Chowdhury, whose mother was a scion of the ancient Mikes family and whose father was a Bengali aristocrat. Roy Chowdhury, who is still in his twenties, gave up a career as an investment banker in London to reclaim and revive his family's estates, which he is in the process of restoring and offering as a tourist destination. Like Kálnoky, he recovered a portion of his family property through restitution, which reversed the expropriation carried out by Romania's previous communist regime.

Kálnoky and Roy Chowdhury's return to Romania, reclamation of family property and investment in restoration and tourism is remarkable given the turbulent and at times brutal history of Transylvania. Looking across the snow-covered acres of the Zabola park, Roy Chowdhury says: 'In the 1920s there was land reform after Transylvania passed from Hungary to Romania, and this reduced the estate. Then in 1949 the entire estate was expropriated by the communists. But my mother never stopped believing that we would reclaim our property.'

Although thousands of hectares of Mikes forest and agricultural land remain subject to court action under the restitution law, Roy Chowdhury has recovered the Zabola park, including its old castle, for now the preserve of bats, and a newer castle currently used as a sanatorium, but soon to be vacated. But perhaps the most intriguing building is the surprisingly mobile Swiss house, which is now being run as a guest house while the castles are being restored.

He says: 'The Swiss house was moved from Berne to Paris in 1889 for the great exhibition, and thence to Vienna. My great-grandmother bought it in the 1890s and took it to Zabola.' When the house was reclaimed from the state it was in bad condition. 'There were chickens in the dining room,' he adds.

Today the Swiss house has been beautifully restored, with simple, solid furniture and local carpets offset by warm colours and roaring log fires - a perfect retreat from the rigours of the Transylvanian winter after a ride in a horse-drawn sled. With only four guestrooms, and surrounded by 40 hectares of park, you are unlikely to feel crowded out.

Whereas Kálnoky's property is in the middle of a village, the Zabola park is more secluded, and guests are free to roam through its tree-lined avenues and lawns. But, like Kálnoky, Roy Chowdhury is offering cultural and wildlife activities. One fascinating excursion is the nearby village of Comandau (or Komandó), up at 1,100m. As its name suggests, Comandau grew up around its garrison, who were charged with defending this part of the Austro-Hungarian empire's frontier from attack. Even today, it retains an extraordinary air of robust martial pride, despite switching to logging from its more soldierly activities.

Roy Chowdhury, too, intends to restore the estate's role as the economic centre of its local village. Transylvania is culturally rich, but decades of communism and the disruption wrought by the change of system have resulted in depressed living standards and an exodus of the young. Providing employment for guides, drivers, cooks and maids will help to regenerate village economies. 'When the hospital moves, some of the 50 employees will not move with it, so there will be a need for jobs,' he says.

Both men are resolute in their belief that sensitive, low-volume tourism in Transylvania can help to revive local economies and provide a new living for estates and country houses. For those who are willing to come and investigate an almost forgotten corner of the continent, these guest houses offer nothing less than a chance to travel back in time to an European idyll.